“I hate most people. There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I want to earn enough money that I can get away from everyone . . . I see the WORST in people.”
Daniel Plainview, There Will Be Blood
My biggest personal flaw has always been cynicism, which is one of the most nefarious attitudes a person can have. (Cynical people often try to disguise their attitudes as just “sarcastic,” and tell themselves that they simply have a sharp sense of humor. Yah, that was me for a long time.)
But sarcasm can easily evolve into more sinister stuff like mockery, arrogance, contempt, and even hatred for other people.
Cynicism is one of the many awful by-products of our ego. The ego whispers to us that we’re smarter than other people, that we’re more talented, that we deserve special things. It urges us to judge people with a single glance, and get offended — or even disgusted — because they aren’t as wise and strong and attractive and worthy of stuff as we are.
“Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.”
Learning about Stoic philosophy has helped me realize that I’ve harbored many of these dangerous mindsets for most of my life . . . and it also inspired me to develop a plan for change. Like all negative habits, a cynical attitude takes hard work and diligence to overcome. You can’t get rid of your ego, but here are some tips that I’ve learned from Stoicism that let me be more accepting and understanding of other people.
These Stoic techniques have helped me curb cynicism, get rid of hatred, and start truly liking (and yes, even loving) my fellow human beings. I hope they’re helpful to you, too.
#1: Remind Yourself That Deep Down, We’re All Still Just Kids
We don’t like to admit it, but there’s a small part inside all of us that still feels frightened by the unknown, desperate for approval, and confused by the world. That part of us wants to do the right thing, but doesn’t always know what the right thing is. Some of the adults who you dislike might act the way they do just to cope with hidden fears and insecurities, or because they don’t know how they should act.
When children make mistakes or imitate something they don’t know is wrong, do we yell at them? Or do we show patience and explain how to do it correctly? The next time you feel contempt for someone, try to imagine how they might have been as a small child . . . and remind yourself that they might still feel that way, on the inside.
#2: Assume the Best Rather Than the Worst
Most of us know that assuming things about people at first glance isn’t wise . . . but convincing our brains of this isn’t easy. Instead of fighting your human desire to assume, try telling yourself this instead:
“Everyone in the world has both good and bad qualities, right? Well, isn’t assuming the best about people just as logical as assuming the worst about them? You already chose to assume the worst; you can just as easily choose to assume the best, instead.”
#3: Imagine What You Have in Common
Regardless of how strange or awful a person seems, it’s a near certainty that you have something in common with them. Some shared interest, talent or experience that you could laugh or tell stories about together. Why? Because you’re both human beings, and you share the same human nature, needs, and emotions . . . whether you want to admit it or not.
When you’re feeling disgusted by someone, try to imagine what you might have in common. You may never have the opportunity to find out, but those similarities are there nonetheless, hiding in plain sight.
#4: Remember That They Know Stuff You Don’t
Every person knows something you don’t . . . no matter how dumb or boring or inexperienced you think they might be. In fact, they probably know lots of things you don’t. Even if those things don’t interest you, it’s still knowledge that you don’t have. And it gives them a different perspective.
Here’s another way to look at it: you can learn something from every person you come in contact with (even if they just provide you with an example of how NOT to do things). Don’t let a cynical attitude rob you of those opportunities to learn from everyone.
#5: Keep In Mind That Everyone Does What They Think Is Right
Socrates famously said “no one does wrong willingly,” and he believed that we always choose what we think is best for us, based on our knowledge and experiences. This is a tough concept to focus on — especially if someone is being cruel to us. But they really do, for whatever reason, think that they need to be doing it.
That doesn’t mean you should let people take advantage of you or hurt you . . . Stoics aren’t afraid to protect themselves or fight for what’s right! But you’ll always have an advantage if you consider why the people you dislike think their actions are necessary.
#6: Focus on the Big Picture
In order for the world to exist as it does, all human beings — even those we don’t like — need to be exactly who they are, playing the specific roles they’re playing.
Those people who annoy you are tiny cogs in a machine, just like you are; if one cog doesn’t do what it was made for, it affects the entire instrument. Our world needs smart people and not-so-smart people, hard workers and slackers, early birds and night owls. Embrace the role you’ve been given, but be grateful to others for playing the roles that you wouldn’t want, anyway.
Marcus Aurelius put it best nearly two thousand years ago, when he wrote this in his diary:
“Constantly think of the universe as a single living being, comprised of a single substance and a single soul; and how all things issue into the single perception of this being, and how it accomplishes all things through a single impulse; and how all things work together to cause all that comes to be, and how intricate and densely woven is the fabric formed by their interweaving.“